Louisiana’s Unique Algebra Mandate Remains Controversial After 7 Years

By Peter West — June 05, 1991 12 min read

In 1984, Louisiana, a state not known as a leader in education reform, took the dramatic step of requiring that every high-school student in the state take Algebra I as part of a series of three mathematics courses required for graduation. Seven years later, the mandate remains controversial in the state. Its critics contend that the requirement has done little or nothing to advance its stated goal of better preparing students for an increasingly technological job market.

They further contend that the mandate was politically motivated and that few Louisiana teachers are qualified to teach the course.

Some of those critics--from within both the education world and the business community that initially pushed for the requirement--are now lining up to lobby the state to modify, if not abolish, it. For the record, state education officials defend the requirement, but admit that little evidence exists to prove its worth. More over, they acknowledge that they have never undertaken a study of the program’s effectiveness and have no current plans to do so. And, with politicians, educators, and business leaders across the nation now beginning the hunt for ways to meet the national education goal of making the United States " first in math and science by 2000, Louisiana officials believe that they were on the cutting edge of a national trend.

As Louisiana’s petroleum and natural-gas industries took a turn for the worse in the early 1980’s, employers in the state collectively decided that public schools were not doing enough to prepare students for a changing job market.

Thus, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a trade association-cum-chamber of commerce, began to lobby the state’s board of elementary and secondary education to strengthen its mandated curriculum, particularly in mathematics.”

The board eventually decided to require every student in public and private high schools to complete three math courses--one of which must be Algebra I--in order to graduate.

While algebra is commonly offered in schools nationwide--and is required by several public schools in the Dayton, Ohio, system--Louisiana is believed to be the only state so far to have implemented such a sweeping mandate.

At least one other state, Mississippi, plans to follow suit in 1995.

“Personally, I think we were ahead of the curve,” said Jackie Ducote, executive vice president of the state business association and one of the mandate’s strongest supporters. “I certainly think the Louisiana standards are a step in the right direction, and we’ve had to work like hell to keep them in place.”

The mandate was not universally popular with educators at the time, however, and remains unpopular with some today.

Its critics, from the state’s teachers’ union to dissidents within the business alliance itself, argue that the mandate has had at best only a marginal effect on high-achieving students, has done little to improve the math competence of non-college-bound and low-achieving students, and may even have discouraged some from continuing their education.

“What we have said to the state board of education repeatedly is that under the guise of raising the standard we have actually destroyed the lives of thousands of students,” said Michael Deshotels, the associate executive director for the Louisiana Association of Educators and a former high-school math teacher.

Mr. Deshotels said a committee of educators that advised the state board on how to strengthen its curriculum “never recommended that algebra be a requirement.”

The mandate was hastily approved, he contends, and little thought was given to whether schools were prepared to teach the course or to the mandate’s effects on students.

“There were no feasibility studies made [to support the decision]. It had no basis in research,” he said. “What you had instead was a political pressure group that determined that this would be a fine thing to do.”

Even some members of the business association argue that the mandate, as currently constituted, does not reflect the desire of all members to strengthen graduation requirements.

An official at the state education department, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more blunt about the rationale behind the mandate.

The official contends that board members at the time the mandate was handed down were concerned that the curriculum was “being watered down” to accommodate black students from formerly segregated schools. The algebra requirement was intended to offset those concerns, he said.”

The official also argues that no as sessment of the mandate has been done because it has become “a sacred cow.”

“There is a reason for it, and it’s basically political,” the official said. “A lot of money was pumped into election campaigns to get this mandate passed, because it’s easier to at tract workers to Louisiana if you put these mandates in place.”

Far from being a local squabble over education politics, the debate over mandating algebra instruction may take on wider importance be cause of recent calls for a stronger emphasis on mathematical reasoning.

For example, indications that algebra and geometry are “gatekeeper’’ courses that correlate with improved performance for minority students in higher education were sufficient for the College Board to call for “serious consideration of a national policy to ensure that all students take algebra and geometry.” (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

Among the general public, however, algebra sometimes is perceived as an arcane discipline with few “real world” applications. That conviction was voiced for a national audience by the syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy, who in a piece headlined “Who Needs Algebra?,’' argued earlier this year that “algebra has little to do with mathematics.”

Algebra “is more loathed than learned, more endured than embraced,” Mr. McCarthy, a writer for The Washington Post, said. “It’s a language, a way of symbolic expression that a few people find fascinating and practical, while most don’t.”

He also cautioned that his city’s students “ought to keep a wary eye on Franklin L. Smith” because the former Dayton schools chief, who recently was named superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, is a strong supporter of mandatory algebra instruction.

As might be expected, math educators counter that such perceptions are harmful to curriculum-reform efforts.

“Algebra is the language through which most of mathematics is communicated,” according to a set of curriculum and evaluation standards issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“It also provides a means of operating with concepts at an abstract level and then applying them, a process that often fosters generalizations and insights beyond the original context,” the standards continue.

But math educators also concede that change must be effected across the curriculum to make algebra more accessible to all students.

“To me, you haven’t really begun to study the essence of math until you begin to study algebra,” said Sigrid Wagner, a professor of mathematics at the University of Georgia, and a leading algebra researcher. In the NCTM standards, issued two years ago, the group argues that, contrary to existing practice, algebraic concepts, to be effectively taught, should be introduced in the early grades, then reinforced and enhanced in later grades.

Those standards have been incorporated into “Algebra for Everyone,’' a curriculum supported by the NCTM that seeks to introduce algebra to all students incrementally beginning in the early grades.

Ms. Wagner agrees with that approach, adding that math educators should revamp their pedagogy because “instead of letting algebra be a filter that keeps people out of higher math, we need to make it a pipeline.”

At the NCTM’s annual meeting this spring, Ms. Wagner told educators that much work needs to be done to make algebra more comprehensible to students.

“There has not been nearly enough research in the teaching of algebra,” she told one session.

Supporters of Louisiana’s algebra mandate argue that the requirement achieves exactly such goals and helps to develop students’ critical-thinking skills.

Ms. Ducote and others are quick to point out that before the state board of education stiffened graduation requirements--and, in recent years, imposed an exit examination on high-school students--many Louisiana students met their requirements simply by passing a single general-math course.

Jean Reddy Clement, who oversees mathematics programs for the state education department, argues that the beefed-up math requirements at minimum have forced teachers to challenge students they otherwise might have ignored.

“I tend to believe that [before the mandate] the curriculum was modified to meet the needs of the students,” she said. “I feel that less and less of that is happening.”

And a comparative analysis of course enrollments in math and science courses released last week by the Council of Chief State School Officers indicates that a high proportion of Louisiana’s students not only take Algebra I, but go on to Algebra II.

The study found that, from 1982 to 1990, better than 95 percent of Louisiana’s high-school graduates enrolled in Algebra I and 64 percent continued on to Algebra II. Those figures compare favorably with the national averages cited in the report of 81 percent of students enrolled in Algebra I and 49 percent in Algebra II.

Nonetheless, the report also shows that in five states--Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oklahoma--that do not have a mandate similar to Louisiana’s, at least 95 percent of high-school graduates take Algebra I.

Five other states have enrollments of at least 90 percent.

In many of those states, the percentage of students enrolled in Algebra II is comparable to Louisiana’s.

And, in some states, such as Maine, where only 84 percent of students en roll in Algebra I, 64 percent of students still continue on to Algebra II.

The report also indicates that only 4 percent of Louisiana’s high-school students take calculus, compared with 9 percent nationally.

Louisiana officials admit that there is little evidence in scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or in graduation rates, to support the assertion that mandating algebra has improved student performance.

And the state exit exam, which went into effect in 1989, “probably has not been in place long enough” to provide such data, Ms. Ducote said.

Ms. Clement said the state has not made any specific efforts to study the effect of the mandate on student performance or retention.

Ms. Ducote, however, believes that the mandate is popular.

In 1982, when the state business association surveyed 892 of its members to determine what education re forms were needed, she said, 89 per cent answered “that algebra should be required for all students.’'

A similar, though much smaller survey, conducted in the group’s newsletter this year, indicated that 90 percent of the 134 respondents supported the requirement.

“We are in tune with what the public and parents want,” Ms. Ducote said. “The educational community, by and large, is out of step.”

Yet, even though other facets of the state’s core curriculum adopted at the same time as the algebra mandate remain relatively noncontroversial, “algebra is the real bugaboo,” Ms. Ducote said. “That’s the one [critics] can’t stand.”

The state teachers’ association, for one, argues that implementing the mandate has drained resources from vocational programs by drawing away students who might other wise have taken such courses. It also has led bright students who fail at algebra to become disenchanted with school, the association claims.

Meanwhile, forces are at work to have the mandate modified.

John D. Taylor, an administrator for a Baton Rouge-based construc tion company and a member of the business coalition who opposes the mandate, said a group of business leaders and educators recently won a lengthy battle to have the state board approve a pilot program under which each parish school district may offer a course in applied algebra” for non-college-bound students.

Mr. Taylor maintained that the “bright, non-college-bound” students his industry seeks were leaving school because they could not pass the existing “theory-based” course.

Ms. Clement of the education department concedes that implementing the requirement has not been without problems.

Finding enough qualified teachers, an ongoing difficulty, “has been our biggest problem,” she said. She estimated that as many as one-third of those teaching the introductory algebra course are middle-school teachers with elementary certification who have had no special training in math education.

“We have provided as much in service as we possibly can, and we have encouraged those middle-school math teachers to go back to school” through tuition-incentive programs, Ms. Clement said.”

A new state law that takes effect next fall requires that teachers have a specialization in math or science to teach such courses, she added.

“The sad part of it is that the princi’ pals in the middle schools really want elementary-certified teachers,” she said, because they can also be pressed into service to teach other subjects.

But, Ms. Clement said, “there are many, many people who have a fear of mathematics and you never will train them.” She noted, however, that Louisiana will use part a $10-million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve the teacher workforce. (See Education Week, May 3 22, 1991)

Even the mandate’s most ardent supporters also concede that, for a variety of reasons, states have not rushed to follow Louisiana’s lead. To date, only the neighboring state of Mississippi has moved significantly to impose a similar program.

Students in that state who enter the 9th grade in 1995 will be required to complete three units of math--including algebra and geometry--to graduate, according to Carolyn Craig, mathematics specialist for the Mississippi Department of Education.

The state board of education has approved the changes, she said, pend0 ing a series of hearings.

The present requirements, she added, simply require graduates to have completed two units of mathematics, which may be satisfied by taking a general-math course.

“A vast number of students in this state take general math I and general math II,” Ms. Craig said. “But when the new requirements go into effect, in essence, we’re going to eliminate the general track altogether.”

But Ms. Wagner, of the University of Georgia, and other math educators are skeptical that statewide mandates will effect lasting change unless a system-wide effort is also made to improve student performance over the long term.

“Generally speaking, the word ‘mandate’ has a bit of a negative connotation,” Ms. Wagner said. “The opportunity for algebra ought to be there for everyone, but to make it compulsory risks a backlash.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Louisiana’s Unique Algebra Mandate Remains Controversial After 7 Years